PORTLAND, Ore. - After immigrating to Oregon from the Mexican state of Oaxaca more than two decades ago, Paula Asuncion worked on farms and in minimum-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants - a widow struggling to feed six children, sharing cramped apartments with other families.
Her prospects changed two years ago after she joined a program that helps immigrants open small culinary businesses. After training with the microbusiness incubator at Portland nonprofit Hacienda CDC, Asuncion now runs a catering service, employs other immigrants, and has bought a home for her family.
Asuncion's story is not uncommon. Experts say the economic downturn brought new interest in self-employment from people having a difficult time finding well-paying jobs, and that has spurred significant growth in microbusiness development programs that teach skills such as business plan writing, marketing and accounting.
Interest in opening a business is especially high among immigrants and refugees. Many have low incomes and less access to employment opportunities than the general population because they have limited English language skills, lack reliable transportation or an American diploma, and are still learning how American society works.
Many of them see self-employment as a shot at the "American dream."
"The biggest concern among immigrants is having stable work. They come to us and say, 'I want to start a taco stand. How do I do that?' " said Janet Hamada, executive director of Next Door Inc., a social service agency in Hood River. The organization plans to expand its business coaching services into a full microbusiness development program aimed at Spanish speakers.
Microbusinesses, defined as enterprises with five or fewer employees, have long been the backdrop of the economy and make up the majority of U.S. businesses. They account for about 26 million jobs.
Marilyn Johnson-Hartzog of the Oregon Micro Enterprise Network said the newly minted entrepreneurs hire family members and others, and quality of life soars. They spend money on goods and services and re-invest in the business.
Given a rise in demand for training for new entrepreneurs, even social service organizations have added microbusiness development programs.
In Durham, N.C., Accion Emprendedora USA aims to help microbusinesses grow in the Hispanic community with training in business planning, marketing and accounting.
Michigan's Global Detroit initiative is developing a collaborative to offer training, technical assistance and micro- loans to immigrants.
Demand for training is especially high among Latinos, partly because some lack legal immigration documents, said Adelante Empresas program director Eduardo Corona.
"Since they have to put food on the table, they're starting to explore their abilities and thinking of opening a business," he said.
At Portland's Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, several microenterprise programs have long waiting lists, including one that teaches refugees how to start home-based child-care businesses.
Program coordinator Tina Do said when immigrant women start a child-care service, benefits spread to other immigrants, who can enter the workforce because they now have child care near home.